My father grew up poor, in one of the poorest Jewish quarters of the Netherlands, the Folkingestraat in the northern city of Groningen. The houses were tiny and so many doors were covering the brick stone facades. The pavement of its few (as they call them:) picturesque streets consisted of sand and because of the predominant weather most of the year of mud. That made wooden shoes very practical – they don’t soak up water and keep your feet warm. And they were durable and cheap. My father’s family wore them not because of a tradition, or to be in, for their appeal or to impress tourists.
Contrary to general expectations about poor people, in school, my father and his brother were extremely good at learning. My father’s name was Nathan, my uncle’s Salomon. Were their parents hoping their children to be like the Biblical Solomon and fictional Nathan the Wise so that they may escape poverty? I researched and found that the older brother, my uncle, simply was named after his father’s father, and his younger brother after his mother’s father – traditions that persisted in a family where no formal Jewish education supported any official religious life after circumcision.
Almost miraculously, they got government stipendiums to study at the University. Their parents then started working double jobs in order to be able to buy leather shoes for them, because wooden footwear was considered a sign of poverty. They didn’t want their boys to feel ashamed. My uncle went to study Medicine. When the next year my father asked his brother what he would study, he answered, I like Medicine – you’ll like it too. On the eve of the Holocaust, they both became capable physicians. On another occasion I will recount how they survived while most of their family and Dutch Jewry were decimated.
Only when my father started working as a doctor, he got money to start buying books. As a student, he had mastered all subject matter by paying attention to lectures only. He had hungered for books all his years of studies when you could find him any free afternoon in the biggest local bookstore, browsing. When people would ask the bookseller for a book, he would recommend: ask the gentleman with the glasses in the back – he knows all my books. He acquired a total number of books fit for an intellectual, but at heart and in attitude he stayed a proud and loyal son of the Working Class. He served his patients – and not the other way around. A father to be proud of.
When it was my turn to go study, I chose Medicine too. This was for my father a sign to start telling me endless amounts of stories from his times as student and physician. The plotline was often the same. There was a medical problem; no one could solve it; he had no idea too, but then solved it anyway. Sometimes he saved the day, and sometimes peoples’ lives.
I knew that now and then he built up the tension, inserted details or reworked the order of events for enhancement of vividness, juiciness, excitement and suspense. He was a man who would never lie – not even a little – but this was not lying. It would have been improper in oral history or a police report. But here, these embroideries were not a blemish or impairment. This was literal freedom. This was entertainment. Of the best sort. With a moral and a happy ending. And with a hero, of course.
Often my dad claimed that he had been just lucky finding what the other doctors of medicine had overlooked. Most of the time, if not always, he had been the unpremeditated superstar, a bystander who to his own surprise may succeed where others had failed. Not having planned to be a medical superman, still, he could snatch some poor fellow from the brink of death by applying just a little – but decisive – brainpower at the right moment.
I liked my father’s narrative style. Only later I found out that this is a typical Working Class way of storytelling. Therefore, it’s my pleasure to give you a similar style story in which I just “inadvertently happen” to be the star, of course. I didn’t become a physician, but I became dati, a religious Jew, so maybe for that reason, my favorite stories are dafkeh (especially) in that area.
My family lived in Gilo, in southern Jerusalem when the worldwide reported shooting on Gilo happened during the Second Intifada. Not one person there died from all the shooting assaults. There are so many powerful stories about these Miracles, each of themselves worthwhile narrating. But for now, I would like to focus on something else that happened in those days.
At the time that the shelling started, my sons were six and eight years old and they had no problem with it. They were as playful and silly as kids of their age are supposed to be. Until… one day my youngest one saw a grown-up family member getting scared by the shootings. And that got him anxious. The excellent father I am, of course, noticed, so I decided to talk with him. It turned out that he had started worrying, sleeping poorly and suffered from scary dreams.
I told him the obvious: “You don’t have to be scared. The biggest noise is from our weapons – we have the heavy artillery, the missiles, the helicopters and the tanks – thank G^d – the snipers have only light weapons. Nebbech (nebbish) the poor little guys in Beit Jalla – they should be scared.” (They didn’t need to, because we didn’t aim at them, and none of them died either, thank G^d.)
Now, have you ever noticed how bright small children are – at least most of them some of the time? They may miss some of our information, but wow, do they know how to work with what they have. So it took this youngster no time at all to retort my initial reassurances. And this is what he said: “But daddy – what if a tank of ours in Bethlehem misfires a rocket and it flies into our window?”
Now, I don’t know if you can picture yourself getting such a question by your young kid that you love dearly. What would you say? Would you say: “Well, don’t worry; that won’t happen so quickly.” I assure you that he would hear that to mean: leave me alone; don’t kvetch. First of all, that would leave him worried. And not only that; that would push his troubled reflection back into his own, private, lonely mind. He would hear it as me forcefully saying that I don’t care about his feelings or about him. And that was not what I had in mind to accomplish.
Furthermore, I quickly contemplated and then rejected saying: “That won’t happen; I personally guarantee you”; or: “G^d loves us too much to allow for that.” Because, what if, Heaven forbid, something like that would happen – what is he to think then? That G^d doesn’t love us; that I’m a liar; that his father doesn’t know what he’s talking about; or that the best way to stay real, is to worry? A tragedy like that – we should never have to deal with it – is hard enough to handle, and shouldn’t be complicated by a notion that: G^d, my father, life or tranquility is forever off and inappropriate. So what to answer him? I had no idea.
But I wanted to help him – no, stronger, I knew that I had to answer him, so to speak. But I didn’t know how. I felt my wish to support him so strongly, that it was like an irresistible command to me. I had to. Did I know what to say – not at all. But I had no shred of self-doubt – I was going to help. I was not going to waste my or his time by performing an impressively pathetic dramatization of helplessness. Many thoughts that somehow only took a few seconds. And what did I do? I opened my mouth to answer him. And then I started explaining. This is what I found myself saying.
“Listen,” I said, “you’re confusing two situations. When there is shooting, do we go outside to look where the bullets come from?” My son shook his head as if I had suggested him to love spinach. “No,” I continued, “we don’t, right, because when we can see the bullets coming, the bullets can see us, and that’s not healthy – that is stupid. There we use our sechel (brains). But after we used our understanding to the maximum, then we use our Emunah (our trust in Goodness).”
“Do we go walk between the flying bullets, singing ‘Look how much Trust I have’? No, we don’t, right, because that would be stupid. Then we would use Trust in the wrong area, the territory of the Intelligence. But after we have been as smart as we can, did all we could, we also don’t go figure what else could still happen; because then you are already in the vicinity of Trust; reasoning there is an out of place use of our intelligence.”
“So we don’t trust when we must think, and we don’t reason when it’s time to trust. We only have to go about our lives as smart as we can and for the rest, we can have Trust.” After this talk, the bombardments continued for more than another year. But I’ve never seen him scared, worried or troubled about it again.
Don’t you like my explanation? I certainly do. One rabbi once put it: while you’re preaching you can’t help overhearing yourself. I learned so much from the answer that I gave my son. But I can’t accept any credit for the wording. I could take credit for that I took responsibility to help my son, and for learning Torah (Jewish Learning) in the past so that my brain had some relevant information to glean. And for moving to Israel where Holiness is so much “in the air,” so much easier to pick up. And also for reporting this to you now.
The Rabbis teach that sometimes we only have to try or only do the first tiny bit. Then Providence will take it from there. And not only that. By virtue of our initiative, people will credit this to us as if we did it all on our own. Success can taste really sweet.